David and Bathsheba
In our sermon series, Bible Stories You Should Know, we have a story in 2 Samuel 11:1-15 of lust, adultery, treachery, and murder that could rival anything on Netflix. It shows how King David, the greatest and most spiritual leader in Israel’s history, breaks bad. This cautionary tale tells us more than we probably want to know about David, as it reveals more about ourselves than we’d care to admit.
God chooses the least likely
Some background is in order. We meet David as the youngest and as-good-as-invisible son of Jesse. The prophet Samuel came around on the word of the Lord to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king of Israel. Samuel looked over Jesse’s sons but God didn’t indicate any of them was the chosen one. The prophet asks, “Do you have any other sons?”
Jesse says, “Only David, who is out in the fields. But it can’t be him.”
Everyone discounted David because he was the runt of a big family and kind of an oddball. If you don’t fit in, that’s okay because God’s story is driven by people who don’t fit in. David was odd because, in the rough and tumble ancient world, David loved sitting on grassy hills by still waters, writing poetry, playing his lyre, and singing songs while tending the sheep. Although he wasn’t the muscle-bound macho most likely to succeed alpha male, he was the one God chose. God chose David because God doesn’t look at what everyone else looks at. God looks at the heart. And he had a heart for God, so Samuel anointed David as the next king.
Don’t fight giants on their terms
Soon we learn that he slew Goliath by keeping his distance and hitting the big guy with something he didn’t expect. Malcolm Gladwell says that despite Goliath’s size and superior armor, David wasn’t as outmatched as it would seem. In the ancient world, slingers were vital units in every army. Scientists measured the mass of the typical stones and the velocity they could be slung and found the effect comparable to that of a .45 caliber pistol. David had no intention of getting too close to Goliath and his big sword. Like Indiana Jones shooting the guy with the sword, David smirked at Goliath’s taunts. If you’ve got some giant-sized problem in your life, use the resources God has already given you rather than letting the problem dictate the terms of the fight you.
The favored one’s success
After Goliath, many biblical chapters are devoted to David’s adventures. He uses his wit and bravery to ascend to the throne. He was merciful, sparing the life of King Saul, who was intent on murdering David. He built loyalties and a prosperous kingdom. He established Jerusalem as the capital city. And got married eight times in total and had ten concubines.
Seeking to glorify God, he kept writing his psalms–many of the psalms, including the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my shepherd), are attributed to King David. God promised him that his descendants shall reign on the throne forever.
That is why the earliest Christians were quick to point out that Jesus descended from David. There are all those boring lists of so and so begat so and so. The point was to show how Jesus, who reigns forever, is David’s promised descendant.
Was he disconnected or bored?
The text doesn’t explain why he did what he did; it simply lays bare his actions. I have two leading theories on why he fell. The first is from a clue in the text. The Bathsheba story begins by saying when it was spring and kings went to battle with their troops, David stayed home. Military rules had been where the guy who decides to go to war has to fight side-by-side with those he sends into battle. Interesting concept. But David went AWOL. He disconnected.
Maybe it’s an indication of other ways he was disconnected—perhaps socially, spiritually. I’m guessing that lots of small decisions led to this, like slacking in his spiritual disciplines. You know how it goes. When out of whack spiritually, we are more prone to act like our wants and desires are all that matter. Before you know it, a lack of centeredness and asking about how his actions might affect others led to trouble. Even for King David, there was no such thing as spiritual autopilot. There isn’t for us either. That’s why I’m so glad you are worshipping today–tending to your spiritual side, staying centered, and developing empathy.
My second theory is born more out of experience. I wonder if David grew complacent, bored. Boredom is a catalyst to breaking bad because we look for some short-term fun, a shot of adrenaline to feel alive at the expense of what we know we ought to be about. When we’re bored in our jobs, marriages, families, or just bored with ourselves, we’re prone to rationalize just about anything to get that shot of endorphins, that feeling of being alive even if it’s risky.
David and Bathsheba
One day, David surveyed his capitol city from the rooftop of his palace. He spies a gorgeous woman on her rooftop. Did she know he was looking? Was she being suggestive, initiating this? That’s the Hollywood version, not what it says in the Bible.
The Bible says David desires her and sends for her. The king’s guard knocks on her door. The king wants to see you come with us. She didn’t really have a choice. This is a story about his abuse of power. You look at the verbs that describe David’s actions. David saw David desired, and David sent for her. David took her and lay with her. Like the Eagles sang, Our desperado has “some fine things laid upon on his table, but he only wants the things he can’t get.”
See, desire, take. No reflection on anyone else but himself. He had the power to take whatever he wanted, so he did. Remember what Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” See, desire, take. It reminds me of Cookie Monster. See cookie, eat cookie. Impulse–action without consideration of anything but your need. When one gets too self-focused, it leads to trouble. That’s why our faith teaches us to be reflective, considerate, and always asking, “What is the most loving thing for everyone involved. Does this action honor God? Does it honor my best values? Does it honor others?”
Bathsheba only says two words in this tale, “I’m pregnant.”
“Everyone makes mistakes but there is no such thing as an honest cover-up.” Prince Pritchett
When David hears the news, instead of owning up, he covers up. And like all cover-ups, the sins keep piling up, going from bad to worse. It’s often the cover-up more than the event itself that is catastrophic.
David’s scheme is to invite Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, back from war for R&R time with his wife. That way, everyone would think Uriah was the father. But Uriah does not go to Bathsheba. He says it is against the rules of war to take pleasure with his wife while his fellow soldiers are at war. It would be wrong. “I’ll just stay here at the palace with you, your majesty.”
There is a nice flip going on here. They keep referring to Uriah as the Hittite. That means he was a mercenary from another country fighting with Israel’s troops, and he was more faithful and attentive to God’s commands and rules than the king to whom God promised an everlasting kingdom.
One of the functions of including this story in the Bible is to remind us of how prone everyone is to awfulness—no matter how strong one’s faith. Most cultures and religions don’t tell these kinds of stories about their heroes. But the Bible insists on including them to remind us that given the right circumstances, the neglect of spiritual and emotional needs means that neither our heroes nor we should be placed on too high of a pedestal. No cult-like following for fallible human leaders!
So Uriah the Hittite doesn’t go to his wife. David tries again. He gets him liquored up. “Now go to your wife.”
“Nope. Wouldn’t be right.”
Now David is desperate. He writes a letter, seals it with wax, and sends it with Uriah back to the front battle lines. The letter instructs the commander to put Uriah at the front of an attack, and once the enemy engages, pull back from Uriah and leave him to die. What started out as neglect of the spirit is now murder. Not only is Uriah slain, but other innocents are killed in the battle as well. There is blood on David’s hands.
When word gets back to David that Uriah and the capitol (police) defenders died in service of a lie. David was callous. Don’t let this trouble you. It’s war. Men die. Get over it. Move on.
With Uriah dead, David is free to take Bathsheba as his wife. What a hero, people would say. He took in that poor widow and her baby. What a saint! For a whole year, he thought he got away with it.
As Ismail Haniyeh says,
Some people think that the truth can be hidden with a little cover-up and decoration. But as time goes by, what is true is revealed, and what is fake fades away.
Lots of people in the cover-up knew, and God knew. And the text says, “…what David had done was displeasing in the sight of the Lord.” I’ll say!
Nathan confronts David
After the child is born, the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to confront David. I like that Nathan chose to tell David a story instead of leading in with accusations. Nathan needed to find a way to break through David’s entitlement. The more entitled you feel, the more horrible you are to people around you.
Nathan goes with a report about what had happened between two shepherds in David’s kingdom. One shepherd was wealthy–had a huge herd of sheep. The other was poor and only had one ewe that was more of a pet than livestock to the man. One day another man, a visitor, came to the rich man’s house. And the rich man wanted to show hospitality to his guest. But instead of taking a lamb from his sizable herd, he seized the poor man’s ewe and served her as dinner.
“Not under my watch!” Shouts David. This man shall be put to death.
And that’s when Nathan coins the phrase, “You’re the man!”
Nathan doesn’t need to explain. The story functioned as a mirror held up in front of David’s face. He sees himself in the poor shepherd. Finally, he gets out of himself and displays empathy. The wound is exposed to the light so healing can come.
I think we all need a Nathan in our lives–someone we can count on to tell us hard truths. Someone to hold us accountable.
Faith communities hold leaders accountable.
Nathan’s role in holding David accountable suggests the proper role of the faith community in this moment of political life in America. Contrary to a popular pledge sweeping through evangelical communities, we aren’t there to impose our beliefs on others. But we are called to advocate on behalf of the victims, the least and lost, and for leaders to be held accountable. We aren’t called to give a pass to those who abuse power just because they advance our agenda. God’s agenda is justice and holding people accountable for abuses of power.
When confronted, David doesn’t keep telling the big lie. Something breaks in him. He becomes David again. He is grieved over his actions and the suffering he caused. Not just grieved that he got caught, but a genuine realization that he had turned into the opposite of what he thought he was. He confesses, and tries to make amends.
The depth of his request for forgiveness is found in Psalm 51. One of his most beautiful psalms. Wash me, purge me.
A far cry from saw, desired, took.
David isn’t canceled; he’s honored—warts and all.
David was not written off in history because of what he had done. He was written into history because he quit playing the hiding game. He confessed his sin, and was willing to suffer the consequences. The consequences of everything David had done would affect him for the rest of his life. His corruption infected his sons who also abused their power. There was a terrible price to be paid. But David was not beyond redemption. None of us are.
What God desires most is for your homecoming. Your fervent prayer to get right with God and your neighbor. God forgave and redeemed David. It was a day of new beginnings and getting the ship straight again. Whatever you’ve done it’s not as bad as David. God can help get you on a new path. How do you get on that path? A good way to begin is to pray the 51st Psalm, opening up your heart, asking for forgiveness and setting your heart on God.
I invite you to just open up your heart to God and silently pray Psalm 51.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. . .
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. . .
blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. . .
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. . .